The People of the Kuiseb: Topnaars, Gobabeb and the Namib-Naukluft National Park
There are two ways to drive to Gobabeb Training and Research Centre from Walvis Bay, the nearest town.
The quickest and most popular route takes one across the gravel plain. The directions are easy enough: take the tarred road until it ends, drive another 40 kms east, and then drive straight south for 65 kms. After about 2 hours (depending on the quality of your vehicle and your confidence driving on Namibia’s roads), you’ll see Gobabeb’s distinctive water-tower on the far horizon – the first sign of life, human or otherwise, since leaving town.
The other way to Gobabeb couldn’t be more different. While both roads are almost entirely encompassed within the Namib-Naukluft National Park, the second route cuts the diagonal, following the long oasis of vegetation tapping the water hidden under the sands of the ephemeral Kuiseb River. Skirting along this natural barrier of the Namib’s sand sea, the road meanders through blocks of beautifully pure colors: blue sky, orange dunes, green treetops, and alternating sections of black and white bedrock. Yet, to me, the most striking part of this route is the fact that the neglected gravel road is more often traveled by donkey-cart than by car.
You see, the last 100 kms or so of the Kuiseb River’s narrow path through the Namib is the traditional land of the Topnaar people. While a lot of the Namib-Naukluft Park is infrequently visited, this section is strongly influenced, if not dominated, by humans. While the population of the Kuiseb Basin in not large – estimates vary from 300 – 800 depending on who you ask – their relatively large numbers of cattle, goats, and donkey’s have a significant footprint.
The Topnaar are a cultural group of Nama speaking Khoikhoi people, which factors along with their naturally isolated physical location, to marginalize them from the more dominant Namibian ethnic groups. Traveling up-river, Rooibank is the first settlement in a long line of small villages, some of which are home to no more than one or two families. Following Roibank comes Armstraat, Dawebdraai 1, Dawebdraii 2, !Ubas, Ururas 2, Ururas 1, Steekgras, Utuseb, Swartbank, Klipneus, Soutrivier, Gobabeb (and it’s ever changing make-up of strange foreigners), then Natab 2 and Natab 1, and finally Homeb. With the glaring exceptions of Gobabeb and the primary school at Utuseb, these communities largely lack running water or electricity. A few sad solar panels speak to what could be, but for the most part they have been poorly maintained.
The Topnaar people’s history is fuzzy at best, but it is known that they have lived in the Kuiseb basin for hundred years. Traditionally hunting game and harvesting the melons of the wild !nara plants that thrive here, the people were forbidden to hunt after the establishment of the Namib – Naukluft National Park in the 1960’s. Today people survive by mixing what little cash they can meagre together with a subsistence lifestyle focused around !nara harvesting and livestock ranching.
Gobabeb’s aura as an outpost of humanity in a featureless and pristine wilderness, as romantic as it is, is also deceptive. To approach the station along this road, instead of it’s alternative, is to confront an inconvenient truth. These people, their issues and realities, as well as unsightly piles of trash imported from a foreign economy of metal, glass, and plastic, are shunted from view from most casual visitors to the park. After all, desperately poor people are not something tourists like to face on an excursion into the “wilderness.” It’s uncomfortable and challenges deep seeded perceptions of what the Namib is and should be.
While life is hard for the Topnaars, and access to basic information about the world is difficult if not impossible to come by, for most, life is arguably better than it was just 25 years ago. At least now, after independence and the end of Apartheid, the South African Army no longer uses their homes, livestock , and bodies for target practice.
Many Topnaar do have hope for the future, though. The booming uranium mining industry could potentially bring unskilled jobs. Or maybe some of the politically controlled cash flow generated from the tourism industry will eventually trickle down to create practical improvements for people’s quality of life. Or, perhaps, just maybe, education and use of culturally sensitive, alternative technologies will improve the quality of life for these people, while at the same time preserving some semblance of their way of life and sustaining the sensitive environment they’ve called home for centuries.